Today's Eucharist Gospel reading from John 12:1-8 recounts the other supper Jesus and his disciples took part in, the week before Passover, with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Mary scandalises Judas by anointing the feet of Jesus with precious ointment. He interprets this for those present as a significant gift in advance of his burial. None of them are aware of just how great are the threats he faces, or the dangerous crisis that overshadows them all. It's the last reported gesture of loving kindness he accepts before violence breaks out upon him, and his Passion begins.
Speaking of the ointment and Mary's action Jesus says
"Leave her alone. She bought it that she might keep it for the day of my burial." (John 12:7)
There are many and varied artistic representations of this moment, but this story revives the memory of St John's City Parish Church in Cardiff, which has two fine Victorian stained glass windows which portray this story, both made and installed in the last years of the nineteenth century. No explanation has ever been offered for this co-incidence. But it seems this story caught the imagination of some wealthy people in that era when the city was growing rapidly due to the coal export boom. It was perhaps a way of encouraging self effacing generosity in relation to God and his church.
"And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner." (Luke 7:37-39)
Matthew and Mark's version is set in the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany. John's version is also set in Bethany, but among familiar friends at the house of Lazarus and his sisters. plus the disciples. All three state that this anointing is to be understood as a prophetic sign of Jesus' impending death.
Anointing the head was a common gesture of hospitality (cf Psalm 23:5b), along with washing the feet (cf John 13:5). Anointing the feet of the sick for healing, and of the dead, as part of the mourning ritual before burial was also common custom. It may be understood as a gesture of healing towards a body that is tired and in need of soothing at the end of life's rough journey. Jesus here is near the end of his journey with the Good News of God's reign.
Neither of the windows in St John's church depict the anointing, but both depict the offering of the 'alabaster jar' Luke speaks of. In one of the windows is inscribed a modest tribute to the one in whose memory the window was installed: "She did what she could."
Jesus did not rebuke anyone for paying such loving attention to himself, but what he did say poses a challenge to anyone who has to give an account of themselves as his disciple.
"Inasmuch as you did/didn't do this to the least of my little ones, you did/didn't do it to me." (Matt 25:40 & 45)